The chant of expectation could be heard in Pro Player Stadium before the bowl championship series title game ended last January.
“Three-peat, Three-peat, Three-peat,” shouted USC fans as the Trojans put the final touches on an Orange Bowl rout of Oklahoma that finished an unbeaten season and secured a second consecutive national championship.
Or, perhaps, it was “Three-Pete.”
As the Trojans open training camp today, Coach Pete Carroll is well aware of the historical implications surrounding USC’s drive to become the first school in the modern era to win three consecutive national titles.
Last year, USC went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll. The Trojans are expected to occupy the same spot when they open the season Sept. 3 at Hawaii.
And, possibly, on Jan. 4 after the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl.
“My focus and attention always goes to the next opportunity, the next time,” said Carroll, who has a 42-9 record in four seasons, including 36-3 in the last three. “Here is this next time that gives us another chance to show that we can hold our level of play over a really long period of time.”
As USC players reported to campus Wednesday for the start of training camp, they acknowledged that history was on their minds.
“I think about it all the time,” junior running back LenDale White said of the opportunity to win a third title. “I don’t see why we can’t do whatever we want to do as long as we listen to Coach Carroll.”
Carroll said the Trojans, winners of 22 games in a row, would not shy from a national spotlight that is expected to shine on them from the moment players walk through the gates of Howard Jones Field this morning for the first split-squad workout.
With Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and running back Reggie Bush, also a Heisman finalist, USC went through the busiest off-season in memory, according to Tim Tessalone, the school’s sports information director since 1984.
Carroll, however, does not plan to change his open-door policy regarding media access to himself or his players.
“It helps that we’ve been through this a couple of times -- whether it’s being No. 1 or having Heisman candidates,” Tessalone said. “The players and coaches have handled it well and we kind of know how to do it.”
Carroll spent much of the last six months blending a staff that changed considerably after the Orange Bowl.
Former defensive line coach Ed Orgeron is now the head coach at Mississippi, offensive coordinator Norm Chow has a similar job with the Tennessee Titans, quarterbacks coach Carl Smith is offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars and offensive line coach Tim Davis has a similar job with the Miami Dolphins.
Immediately after Chow’s departure, Carroll hired Steve Sarkisian and named him assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach. Sarkisian, who played under Chow and coached at USC for three years before joining the Oakland Raider staff last season, will oversee the offense on a day-to-day basis, Carroll said.
Lane Kiffin was promoted from receivers coach and passing game coordinator to offensive coordinator. Kiffin will call plays from the press box and relay them to Sarkisian and Carroll.
Jethro Franklin replaced Orgeron and Pat Ruel replaced Davis.
Carroll said he embraces the challenge of directing a new staff while trying to maintain the Trojans’ recent success, “because people doubt that we’ll be able to. I kind of like that part of it.”
Last season, USC’s offensive line and receiving corps were regarded as the biggest question marks.
The line is deep and experienced, with only one spot -- left guard -- still undetermined. Sophomore Drew Radovich is the leading candidate to fill the role. Taitusi Lutui, who started at right tackle last season, will also work at guard with the return of Winston Justice, who was suspended last season but won back the right tackle spot in spring practice.
Junior flanker Steve Smith and sophomore split end Dwayne Jarrett are regarded as one of the nation’s best receiving duos, and incoming freshman Patrick Turner is expected to make an immediate contribution.
USC’s focus of concern has shifted to the interior defense, where the Trojans must replace All-American tackles Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody and All-American linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu.
“We have to bring that group along in a hurry -- they don’t have any time to get going,” said Carroll, who is also defensive coordinator. “That’s been a major concern and will continue to be.”
Sophomore Sedrick Ellis will replace Patterson. If the season started today, senior LaJuan Ramsey and redshirt freshman Fili Moala would alternate in Cody’s spot, Carroll said. Travis Tofi also will receive multiple repetitions.
“We’re not the Wild Bunch anymore, but we’re going to establish our own identity,” senior end Frostee Rucker said.
Senior Dallas Sartz returns as the starting strong-side linebacker and sophomore Keith Rivers will play on the weak side. Junior Oscar Lua, senior Ryan Powdrell and sophomore Thomas Williams are competing to replace Tatupu in the middle. But Carroll is eagerly awaiting his first chance to work with a quartet of heralded incoming freshmen: Rey Maualuga, Luthur Brown, Brian Cushing and Kaluka Maiava.
“The biggest challenge we have is how to get guys enough repetitions so we can find out who’s the best and who’s most ready to play,” Carroll said.
Despite the departure of returning starter Eric Wright, who left school in June rather than face a pending school disciplinary panel for his role in an alleged incident that involved sex and drugs, Carroll said he is comfortable with a secondary that will feature senior Justin Wyatt and redshirt sophomore Terrell Thomas as the starting cornerbacks. Junior Darnell Bing and senior Scott Ware will be the starting safeties.
Tom Malone returns as perhaps the nation’s top punter. Sophomore walk-on Mario Danelo and incoming freshman Troy Van Blarcom will compete to replace Ryan Killeen, who handled all kicking duties for nearly three seasons.